J'Accuse

Eight years before the staggering Napoleon (1927), French filmmaker Abel Gance made an international name for himself with this powerful antiwar drama, whose grand narrative scale and deep humanity underscore his debt to Victor Hugo. Despite the epic themes and healthy running time, the story is minutely focused on a cruel husband, his long-suffering wife, and the handsome poet she loves; after the Great War breaks out, the two men wind up on the front lines together, while the woman is raped by invading German soldiers and bears an unwanted child. Gance had served in the French army before production commenced, and he reenlisted in order to shoot the real-life battle scenes that turn up in the movie’s final third. He also recruited real soldiers to stage the haunting nightmare sequence in which scores of men rise from the dead and march home to learn whether the people they left behind have been worthy of their sacrifice. By the time the movie came out in 1919, the war was over, but most of soldiers who took part in the sequence had been killed in action.